The Dark Tower
The Waste Lands
Donald M. Grant • 1991 • 512 pages
A Novel Critique
The Waste Lands, King's third volume of the Dark Tower cycle, is the most complete and fully realized of all the Dark Tower books, despite its "cliffhanger" ending. It stands at a vital point in the series. The Gunslinger is concerned with world-building, the character of Roland, and establishing the parameters of his quest. The Drawing of the Three gathers the members of Roland's party - his ka-tet - and invests itself in their personalities. While these first two volumes are crucial to the series, the actual quest for the Dark Tower really begins here. In large part a quest novel along the lines of The Stand and The Talisman, The Waste Lands also delves deeper into the inner worlds of its primary characters, putting them in situations that shape them in unexpected and rewarding ways.
Beginning a few months after the events culminating The Drawing of the Three took place, The Waste Lands finds both Eddie and the newly merged Susannah learning to become gunslingers. Additionally, both are learning not only to move beyond their damaging pasts, but also to use them to their advantage. Eddie, learning to cope with the harmful idealized memories of his brother, is taking up his childhood hobby of whittling, which comes into play during one of the novel's most important moments. Similarly, Susannah's violent Detta Walker personality is recalled and put to critical use near the close of the book. Unlike the Losers Club in It, these characters have the benefit of several books in which to delve into their histories and their personalities can develop slowly, over time. More than in any other Dark Tower novel, here it is immensely satisfying to witness character change and growth.
Roland himself, having recovered physically from the lobstrosity attacks in The Drawing of the Three, now finds himself on the verge of losing his mind. His rescue of Jake in The Drawing of the Three contradicts his sacrifice of him in The Gunslinger, creating a paradox. Jake himself, alive inside the paradox, is suffering from the same dual set of memories - one in which he is alive, and one in which he is dead. The first half of this long book details the division of both Roland and Jake (neatly bringing to mind the duality of Odetta/Detta in the prior volume, and inticipating the same of Big Blaine/Little Blaine near the end of the novel), and their struggle for answers and sanity.
Jake's entrance into Roland's world is only possible through a horrifying ritual that threatens all of them. In one of King's most terrifying sequences, Jake must make his way through the evil Mansion on Dutch Hill, which bears resemblance to other monstrous places in King's fiction. The Overlook in The Shining, the Marsden House in 'Salem's Lot, the Black Hotel in The Talisman, and the house on Neibolt Street are all precursors to The Mansion, which is not possessed of evil but articulated evil itself, a demon in the shape of a house. The ritual that allows a doorway between worlds is dependent on all four members of the ka-tet; though terrifying, this sequence is also affirming, demonstrating the first time these four work together as a unit. While the negative repercussions from the ka-tet's actions reverberate throughout the series (particularly with Susannah in Wolves of the Callaand Song of Susannah), the bonding of these four characters is vital to the function of these books, and seems only natural from this point on.
The second half of The Waste Lands propels the pilgrims a long way in their travels. King skillfully weaves the details of Roland's strange world into the narrative, including information about the Beams that hold the Tower in place, which become critical elements in the later series, as well as Hearts In Atlantis and Black House. Characters from "our" world render the strange landscape even more alien than in The Gunslinger by comparison, but also give readers an accessibility that book resists.
In the later Wolves of the Calla, Eddie remarks that "coincidence has been canceled," a development that begins here. They discover that anything that happens in the present and the past can be keys to future puzzles. The purple blade of grass, Eddie and Jake's shared dreams, Susannah's psychic flashes, and the very existence of Jake's books (not to mention the probability that the book Charlie the Choo-Choo book belonged to each of the New Yorkers at one time) are just the most obvious examples. Jake's book of riddles leads into Roland's stories of Fair-Day riddling in Gilead, allowing us to see a less tragic aspect of Roland's childhood. The transformation in Roland's personality is one of the most significant changes in The Waste Lands: at points, we find him funny, regretful, and compassionate. Following Jake's rescue, Roland tells the boy "I'll never leave you again." Even his doubts about this decree seem new and unexpected - though Roland is still focused on his quest for the Tower, he allows himself to care for things beyond it.
Roland's resolve is put to test in the book's second half, which takes place in a ruined city called Lud, whose factions continue to tear each other apart. King takes clever jabs at both war and religion here - one faction, the Pubes, worship "the god-drums," which blast out of the city's speakers at random intervals, inciting the Pubes to sacrifice a person. That the god-drums are nothing more than a snippet of a ZZ Top pop song both underlines the futility of their war and worship and illustrates the connections between Roland's world and "ours." (Importantly, though, Eddie states that the song - "Velcro Fly" - was never a single; the fact that it was suggests that the world of Eddie, Jake, and Susannah is not the world of the reader, a suggestion expanded upon in Wolves of the Calla.)
Jake is kidnapped and the party must separate, one of the first times Eddie and Susannah are left alone in Roland's world. It is an important moment - Roland, bound by his promise that he will not let Jake die again, goes after him. Both Susannah and Eddie have become gunslingers by this point, and can be relied upon to further the quest for the Tower - more specifically to locate Blaine, the monorail from their prophecies that will take them through the titular Waste Lands (which may be an analogue to The Blasted Lands from The Talisman, including the train that runs through them.) That Blaine is both sentient and insane neatly mirrors both Roland's fractured mind at the start of the book, and Jake's harrowing journey within the demonic Mansion on Dutch Hill.
The final sequences of the book's main narrative - Eddie and Susannah reaching Blaine, Roland finding Jake and battling the Tick-Tock Man, a frightening ruler obsessed with time - are among King's most successful. This dual finale is exhilarating, fantastically paced and showcasing each character at the top of his or her abilities. The appearance of a man/creature with the initials R.F. near the end of the book hints at further connections to King's other novels, especially The Stand and The Eyes of the Dragon (these connections are made explicit in the following volume, Wizard and Glass).
Following these denouements, the ka-tet reassembles aboard Blaine and is forced to trade riddles with him for both their safe passage through the Waste Lands and their lives. The book ends at this key juncture, just before the riddling begins - an exciting cliffhanger that would grow frustrating as the time between Dark Tower volumes grew. When it did arrive, both this cliffhanger and similarity to The Waste Lands's internal titling structure (chapters like "Door and Demon" and "Bridge and City" beget Wizard and Glass) bound it directly to this book; never before or since in the Dark Tower novels are two volumes so inextricably connected.
Each book in the Dark Tower series has a distinct feel and flavor; of all the books, The Waste Lands seems the most of a piece with King's non-Dark Tower novels. The camaraderie of the ka-tet resembles the Losers Club of It, the Ad Hoc Society of The Stand, and Ben Mears's party in 'Salem's Lot, and the book's basic structure (with action sequences throughout and a final showdown against the forces of evil) can be felt throughout his canon, in everything from Carrie to The Dark Half. Though the basic themes and tropes are familiar, King reinterprets them into the larger fiction of the Dark Tower universe, making them seem fresh and new, and fantasy, horror, Western, and science fiction genres blend easily and cohesively. Despite being part of a series, The Waste Lands is one of King's most impressive singular achievements.